Sunil Babu Pant is a member of Nepal's Constituent Assembly and the founder and executive director of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), an organisation working with gender and sexual minorities. BDS addresses many issues of political representation, non-discrimination, health, community building and human rights. In December 2007, the Supreme Court of Nepal arrived at a historic ruling in favour of Pant and three other petitioners, mandating a revision of all laws concerning fundamental rights so as to apply to 'third gender' citizens and to ensure no discrimination against members of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community, granting a third-gender option for citizenship and identity documents, and ordering the formation of a government committee to examine the question of same-sex marriage (see Himal March 2008, 'The state of homosexuality'). Pant spoke to Kaveri Rajaraman in May 2010 about his activism, the consequences of the Supreme Court ruling, and the progress of the Constituent Assembly towards writing a historic constitution with explicit provisions for the recognition and protection of the LGBTI community.
How did you get the idea to run for the Constituent Assembly, and how did you pick the platform and party with which to run? In what ways do you think it has brought forward the rights agenda?
When the Interim Constitution was formulated, we were very disappointed that the suggestions we gave were not even tabled. So, in that context, we thought it was time to maybe ask the parties to also give us backing as they prepared for the Constituent Assembly elections, as we had supported them in the second Jana Andolan (people's movement). We went to all the small and big parties, asking them to include LGBTI rights into their party manifesto, and some parties readily agreed. The first party to do so was the Maoist party, much to our surprise, because I'd heard beforehand that some of the senior leaders were very negative. But I was glad to find that this was not the entire party's policy, and that there were gay-friendly people in this and other parties. So they were the first party to include our rights, and then the Nepali Congress followed, after which many other smaller parties did the same.
The Communist Party Nepal (United) was very supportive. One of their leaders had been following our work on the internet and through the media. He also came to some of our events and supported gay rights on a low, low scale. And on the last day of nominations for the personal candidates list, I heard from this tiny communist party, CPN (United), at 9 o'clock – 'OK, we would like people from third-gender and gay communities standing on our party's behalf.' This was a big surprise, and we were running around saying, 'OK, what do we do? Should we go for it?' I said, 'Look, we have nothing to lose.' That's how I got included into the list. The party didn't have enough candidates to cover all the electoral areas, so they were happy for us to be on the list wherever they didn't have candidates. We found another 11 candidates to contest. We only had offices and networks in 15 districts at that time, and the party actually did well in those areas.
What has been your experience in the Constituent Assembly?
I've been very happy for the past year and a half. It has been very exciting to have an opportunity to sensitise the entire Constituent Assembly and parliament on sexual minority rights issues. The constitutional draft that has been formulated around minority community rights and fundamental rights has fantastic language, ensuring gay, lesbian and transgender rights. The citizenship issue is covered in the draft, as are marriage rights, property rights, the non-discrimination clause, social security, pay and pension.
I have also started a youth movement over the last six months, realising that while the older generation has done a good job during the first and second popular movements, the autocracy and the hierarchy in the party system, with their mistrust towards each other, were not letting the new generation take the lead. This was a big problem. So we think that now the younger generation – educated, intelligent, hard-working and I think much more honest, to themselves and to the country – should take the lead. We've been organising the youth movement and have formed a youth caucus in the parliament, cutting across party lines. Since I do not belong to any strong political ideology or big parties, people from across parties seem to trust me.
Have any of the chapter drafts, to your knowledge, incorporated LGBTI rights yet? In the draft of the constitution itself, is there any explicit provision around third gender?
Most of the chapters, especially those dealing with fundamental rights issues, have been formulated with a great deal of discussion for inclusivity and for LGBTI rights – I was part of the committee. We also did not want too much affirmative action or reservation or things like that. If non-discrimination and equal opportunity are ensured, we are perfectly capable. Those who need affirmative action could fall into other categories – for instance, caste-based or along those lines. We don't think we need a separate quota for gays and lesbians for education, health, jobs or pensions or anything else.
The gender definition has been extended to third gender – the categories are men, women and third gender, very clearly written. The chapter for citizenship ID rights has sub-articles saying that all citizens have the right to have a citizenship ID according to their gender identity, with an explanatory note that says that these are men, women and third gender.
What about progress towards the other directives in the Supreme Court ruling? For example, what is the status of the government committee that the Supreme Court has ordered to explore the subject of same-sex marriage?
They are drafting this. They have done thorough studies, consultations with communities, with the media, with professors, with government departments, with the security forces, with religious groups. They travelled to eight major towns and did wide consultations while drafting it, and as far as I know they are supportive of recognising same-sex relationships. They're probably still not sure what they would like to call it – marriage or something else – but there is no doubt about the rest of it.
How are people and parties in Parliament responding to the Supreme Court directive to overhaul any rule made by the legislature that was in contravention of granting full rights to LGBTI communities?
Largely in a positive manner. So far, I've only heard two lawmakers out of 601 who had concerns about where this would lead us. Other leaders are publicly supporting the rights of third genders, gays and lesbians, and almost all the parties have now a fully LGBTI-supportive policy. In the first six months, I went to Parliament with my laptop, prepared and made PowerPoint presentations on one-on-one and group bases. People had many questions. That process helped a lot, and we also organised programmes and meetings, and invited CA members here.
What is the police's reaction to this? How are the police being impacted by this and what is the real impact on the lives of the LGBTI community?
The violence has gone down dramatically today, especially from the police and security forces. In general, we used to face the most violence from the security forces, not from the general public. So that has been solved, especially after the Supreme Court decision. Now the police invite us for sensitisation trainings; they ask us if we need protection when we organise programmes. At the ground level, a lot of LGBTI are getting to be pretty confident, proud about themselves. Now they accept themselves and carry themselves beautifully and with dignity, and their families are supporting them. The Education Ministry is, I think, already working towards including a chapter around homosexuality and transgender in higher-level education curricula.
Do you have any words of advice to the LGBTI people of Southasia who are also struggling and want to make a change?
I do not believe I am the right person to advise anybody. Different movements arise amidst different cultures, different issues, different policies, different governments and different religions. Under these circumstances, the strategy we have taken forward and been successful with may not work as well elsewhere. So I can only express my full solidarity with the cause, and I am available if anybody needs me anywhere. Persistence and honesty – that's the only strategy, I think, that works for everyone.
~ Kaveri Rajaraman is a biologist and activist in New Delhi.